Hang there like a fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die!
Having grown up in Turkey, I am not coming from a deep Shakespeare culture. We read translated excerpts from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in our literature classes but I really believe one has to read Shakespeare in his language to understand and love it… That’s why my relationship with the great man really started as we moved to NYC and started doing Shakespeare in the Park, a New York tradition combining two great things about the city: It’s Theater in Central Park… And, hey, it’s FREE, too! The only thing you have to do is go early in the morning and get in the line for free tickets distributed at noon. And, believe me, waiting in line is half the FUN… You have people sleeping on their blankets, playing board games, reading the evening’s play together as a group…
And when you get your tickets, you are as happy as a clam… look at me!
Lewisto and I read every play before we saw it and over the years we have read/seen Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Comedy of Errors, The Winter’s Tale, Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, A Midnight Summer Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and finally… Cymbeline a few summers ago, one of Shakespeare’s late works that deals with the themes of innocence and jealousy. And most important for us, Damian played in a 1997 Royal Shakespeare Production of Cymbeline.
So today’s throwback takes us to a 26 year old Damian Lewis playing Posthumus in Cymbeline staged at Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1997, at Barbican and also at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York and JFK Center for Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.
The play is still fresh in my mind that my big ambition today is to storify it for you with the lovely pictures that I found online and talk a bit about Damian’s character Posthumus as well as the play’s reviews.
Well, Cymbeline is the King of Britain as Augustus Caesar is the Emperor of Rome. Cymbeline has three children, but his two sons were kidnapped when they were kids and so he only has a daughter now: Imogen. The queen, the King’s second wife, has a son, a real laughing stock, called Cloten, and Cymbeline wishes Imogen to marry him. However, Imogen falls in love with her father’s ward Posthumus Leonatus (Damian Lewis) and the king banishes Posthumus from court and sends him to Italy for exile.
As Posthumus and Imogen say their good-byes to each other, they give each other a token to remember their love by… Imogen gives Posthumus a ring that used to belong to her mother and Posthumus gives her a bracelet. (Side note: I read somewhere that, lovers used love tokens to tell everyone around “she’s mine” and “he’s mine” in the Elizabethean era.)
Posthumus leaves for Rome where he meets Iachimo and the two talk about virtues of women. Iachimo claims he can seduce even the most virtuous Imogen and the two make a bet.
Iachimo arrives in Britain to seduce Imogen. Understanding he cannot corrupt her, he finds a way to hide in her bedroom and steals her bracelet from her wrist as well as spots a mole on her right breast to present Posthumus as a proof of his success.
Iachimo easily convinces Posthumus that he has won the bet. Posthumus, devastated, tells his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen in Wales. Instead, Pisanio advises Imogen to disguise herself as a boy, Fidele, and she accidentally meets her brothers, who were kidnapped twenty years ago by Belarius, a nobleman who was banished from the court by King Cymbeline.
Cloten goes after Imogen to Wales in Posthumus’ clothes, determined to rape her as well as find Posthumus and kill her. Instead, one of Imogen’s brothers decapitates him and lays his headless body next to Imogen/Fidele, who has taken a potion that makes her appear dead. When she wakes up, Imogen/ Fidele believes that headless body belonged to her husband and she joins the Roman army, which is invading Britain as a result of Cymbeline’s failure to pay tribute to Rome.
Posthumus, who deeply regrets that he had Imogen killed, and the kidnapped princes who had no clue about their real identities are instrumental in defeating the Roman army and Cymbeline.
The final scene is typical and very much FUN with explanations leading to a HAPPY ENDING for everyone and Posthumus saying the most beautiful words that may mellow anyone that is more than a bit pissed with him because of the ease with which he believed Imogen was not virtuous… which reminds me of some certain hedge-fund billionaire that believed Dr. Mojo was selling him out…
“Hang there like a fruit, my soul, Till the tree die!”
Ok, Posthumus, I forgive you 😀
Washington Post critic Lloyd Rose, who says “Cymbeline puts the ‘fairytale’ back in romance” argues Imogen-Posthumus-Iachimo triangle is the most successful element in the production: “Steadfast, courageous Imogen bears comparison with the heroines of the great comedies, and the grave, gentle Pearce, with her beautiful low voice, does well by her. Posthumus, who first makes a bet with Iachimo about Imogen’s virtue and then is fool enough to believe that scoundrel’s lies, is a loser of a character. Though the handsome Lewis does what he can to make the character more impulsive than stupid or mean, the happy ending is somewhat marred by the audience’s suspicion that Imogen is way too good for him.”
I’m obviously not a theater critic but that’s exactly what I’m talking about. An actor can do only so much about Posthumus; in fact, it’s almost universally accepted that he is one of the weaker Shakespearean characters, And, Imogen being one of the strongest Shakespeare characters makes Posthumus all the more weaker as a character.
Ben Brantley of New York Times also talks about moments of “searing emotions” in Cymbeline saying “most of these come from Ms. Pearce, but the intense Mr. Lewis brings a haunting feeling of irreparable injury to the scene where he is made to believe that Imogen has betrayed him.”
Damian Lewis bringing “a haunting feeling of irreparable injury”? Ha! We know that well, don’t we? We know THAT very well.